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First of the 'Policy Intellectuals' : LIBERAL Adolf A. Berle and the Vision of an American Era by Jordan A. Schwartz (The Free Press: $24.95; 422 pp.)

November 22, 1987|Richard Lingeman | Lingeman, executive editor of the Nation, is author of "Don't You Know There's a War On? A History of the American Home Front, 1941-1945" (G. P. Putnam's Sons) and "Theodore Dreiser: At the Gates of the City, 1871-1907" (Putnam's). He is completing the second volume of the latter biography. and

The brain-truster or "policy intellectual"--what the British call a boffin--is a relatively recent phenomenon in American politics. The emigration from academia to Washington really began in 1932 when the New Deal became the playpen of bright, ambitious young men with ideas on how to save the country, and the quintessential brain-truster was Adolf A. Berle Jr. His career, as detailed in Jordan A. Schwartz's prodigiously researched biography, serves as both inspiration and cautionary tale for the young men and women at think tanks, universities or law offices who are dreaming of becoming the makers and shakers of the next Administration.

Berle broke the trail for them. As a politically ambitious (for influence not elective office) young lawyer in the 1920s, he staked out the field of expertise that would buy his ticket to Washington--corporate finance. An eloquent writer with a gift for popularizing arcane legal and economic subjects, he showcased his ideas in the major law journals, and in more accessible style in the Nation, the New Republic and the Survey. During those years, he also dabbled in social reform and the settlement-house movement, did pro bono legal work for worthy causes such as Indian rights and built a law partnership into a successful Wall Street firm. He also took care to marry into wealth, though his choice of the brilliant Beatrice Bend Bishop, judging from Schwartz's account, seems to have been dictated more by intellectual affinity than social climbing.

Her fortune, Schwartz writes, provided Berle with the financial cushion he needed for his forays into public service. But Berle would probably have scaled the greasy pole if she had been poor. The son of a progressive Congregationalist minister who preached on the social gospel, he was imbued early on with a compulsion to live, as he put it, a "causative life." A child prodigy, he enrolled at Harvard at age 14 and was graduated from the law school at age 21, the youngest LLB in that institution's history.

Short, arrogant, intense, he had little patience with his intellectual inferiors, of whom there were many. While teaching at Columbia in the late 1920s, Berle collaborated with Gardner Means, an economist, on the book that won him intellectual acclaim, "The Modern Corporation and Private Property." Its thesis that the concentration of corporate power in the hands of a managerial and financial elite posed a threat to democracy was tailor-made for the anti-business mood in 1932, the nadir of the Depression. "The Modern Corporation" was a genuinely prophetic work that combined sound scholarship with a ringing call for greater community (read government) control of overweening corporate power. Time dubbed it "the economic Bible of the Roosevelt Administration."

Even before the book's publication, Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt had invited Berle to join two other Columbia professors, Rexford Tugwell and Raymond Moley, in writing his speeches. Berle's valuable services won him the new President's ear, though not a government job, which was all right with him. He was too restless a temperament to settle into a bureaucratic or elective niche, and preferred to style himself "an intellectual free lance."

In 1938, Berle decided to go to Washington after all as assistant secretary of state. Drawing on his earlier revulsion at American military intervention in the Dominican Republic, which he had witnessed firsthand in 1918, and alert to the danger of Nazi meddling in Latin America, he became the architect of the Good Neighbor policy, which sought to guarantee collective security and self-determination for all states in the hemisphere. Never one to mince words, he called for an "American empire," though he meant one that was based on commercial dominance rather than military hegemony.

Schwartz, Presidential Research Professor at Northern Illinois University, gives a lucid and rounded account of Berle's ideas and tactics during the momentous years when his influence was at flood tide. And he admirably locates the man as an actor in history--in the context of Washington in the 1930s and 1940s as well as against the larger backdrop of American liberalism movement. Berle was a link between the mugwump anti-imperialist, Progressive reformers of his father's generation and the New Deal. The political and intellectual matrix in which his character was formed goes a long way toward accounting for his motivating ideals, but one misses a sense of the psychological dynamics behind Berle's lifelong mesmerization by power in all its seductive guises.

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